Obituary: John Ransom, champion of railway and canal preservation

Philip John Greer Ransom. Heritage railway champion, historian and author. Born 24 September, 1935 in Northamptonshire. Died 27 March, 2019 in Lochearnhead, aged 83

John Ransom
John Ransom

As a boy John Ransom used to watch the great London Midland and Scottish express trains rumbling by, cycling to see them scything through his native Northamptonshire countryside.

He lived not far from the west coast main line and it was the sight of those steam engines that sparked a lifelong interest in railways. When the family moved to Wales, his enthusiasm expanded to take in the Welsh narrow gauge line.

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It was not until many years after he made his home in Scotland that he produced the celebrated book Iron Road, The Railway in Scotland, which saw him shortlisted for the Saltire Society Scottish History Book of the Year.

In the interim he had become a journalist, writing more than 25 books in all, and a passionate champion of railway and canal preservation, demonstrating his fascination by buying a steam locomotive that had seen war service in France.

His family background though lay in pharmaceuticals – his grandfather had founded William Ransom and Sons plc, now known as Ransom Naturals Ltd – and in farming. It was when his father farmed in Northamptonshire that his interest in railways began. Eton educated, he was one of the first to join the Ffestiniog Railway Society in 1951 and among the first volunteers who laboured to revive and re-open the railway.

Following his national service he worked in the packaging industry and then moved into journalism, initially as a staff writer on a packaging magazine. After that he established his writing career while maintaining his strong links with the Ffestiniog RS from his home in London, through the London Area Group of which he was secretary from 1958-64.

In 1965 he embarked on the project that he is best known for: the generous purchase of Mountaineer, a locomotive from the Tramway de Pithiviers à Toury in France. After successfully conducting lengthy negotiations in French to agree the price and deal with all of the formalities required to move the engine to the UK, the loco arrived on the Festiniog Railway, via Isleworth, in October 1967.

He’d taken a gamble buying the engine, as he did not even know then if the company would accept her, but she was welcomed with open arms and became a significant part of the fleet with Ransom later becoming vice president of the society, in recognition of his gift.

He served on the Council of the Association of Railway Preservations Societies (ARPS) now known as the Heritage Railway Association (HRA), from 1974 and in 1977 moved, with his wife Libby, to Lochearnhead in Perthshire. He was the first secretary of the HRA’s Scottish committee, serving until the eve of his 80th birthday.

An enormously competent individual, he worked with a dry sense of humour and a light touch to get things done, single-handedly organising the ARPS annual awards for many years.

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A contributor to the Oxford Companion to British Railway History, his book Iron Road was first published in 2007 and is a comprehensive history of Scottish railways, embracing both the technical details and social and cultural aspects of the industry. Other titles include an archaeology series, plus Narrow Gauge Steam Its Origins and Development and others on areas of Scotland, including Loch Lomond and The Trossachs.

His interest in transport also encompassed a great enthusiasm for canals. He wrote various books on the subject, including a guide to Irish Inland Waterways, Your Book of Canals and The Archaeology of Canals and organised numerous canal and boat trips over the years, including on the steam puffer Auld Reekie from Oban to Fort William, along the Caledonian Canal and on to Loch Ness, Inverness and back.

He also owned a succession of narrow boats for canal cruising and was a great steam boat fan. He had a couple of steam boats of his own – a far more family-friendly way of enjoying transport than simply standing alone on a footplate – taking numerous outings on them, particularly on Loch Earn and Loch Awe.

Ransom, who was still attending HRA committee meetings up until a few months ago, is survived by his wife Libby, their sons Hugh and Robert and four grandchildren.